Today was the day we’ve been building up to for so many years: launch! Today the telescope that so many of us have put so much time into was tied to a giant helium balloon and thrust into the stratosphere. It was a day of incredibly high highs and low lows, and in a real sense the day is not over yet. Before I take a nap, here is a bit about what it was like.
SPIDER had its pickup rehearsal on Tuesday and its hang test on Wednesday. These were intensive events, both for our team and for the riggers and CSBF engineers who support Antarctic ballooning. Late Wednesday we suddenly found ourselves in a spell of clear weather expected to last through most of Thursday, with a tired team and a less-than-full liquid helium tank. After the hang test we hurried SPIDER back into the high bay and spent the afternoon and evening filling it to the brim with liquid helium and finishing last-minute taping jobs. The riggers, engineers, and most of our team went back to get some shuteye before our first launch attempt, scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday morning – New Year’s Day.
A launch attempt is an elaborate process that begins long before the target launch time. Members of our team arrived early to prepare, some staying overnight, some taking shuttles to LDB at 1:30 and 3:00 a.m. The riggers and CSBF team arrived in time to attach SPIDER to the Boss at 4:00 a.m.
I was part of the “late” shift – I slept fitfully, arrived at 7:30 a.m., and hoped to be fresh for launch and line-of-sight. By the time I arrived, SPIDER was loaded on the Boss and pulled back from the deck. Circa 8 a.m. SPIDER proceeded to the launch pad, followed by support vehicles carrying the flight train and helium gas. The balloon did not go out at this stage: it can’t easily be put back into its box, so it’s only unfurled when it’s go time.
At least two scientists stayed on the Boss at all times pre-flight to check on the pump maintaining the vacuum on the superfluid tank. Around 9 a.m. we were given a window for photos, so a bunch of us trooped out to the launch pad in hard hats to take a few last pictures of (and with) SPIDER. Everything was happening quickly and according to plan, and we all dared to believe it would all come off easily on the first try…
By late morning the winds had turned, and the launch conditions had become marginal at best. So we waited. The weather didn’t look good for the coming couple of days, so we all hoped to be able to get off the ground. Many times we were certain we were going to pack up and go home, until the wind gave us a glimmer of hope. It was agonizing. So late in the season, with bad weather on the way, it wasn’t clear when (or if) there would be another good launch day. Even if there was, every day of delay is very costly in additional liquid helium. On a more personal note, I have a wife and daughter at home and will be moving to a new city soon after I return; every day of delay is hard on my family. I spent much of the day pacing, inside and outside, as did many of my colleagues.
A bit after 3 p.m. our fortunes turned, and the NASA team decided that conditions were good. There was jubilation in our high bay, and throughout LDB. The balloon was laid out and attached to SPIDER. Inflation began near 4 p.m. We all gathered at the edge of the launch pad to watch, scarcely believing that we would be dangling years of work from the rapidly-growing gas bag upwind of the Boss. In the final moments our project leader, Bill Jones, stood on a lift to remove the final piece of pump plumbing and close up the corresponding door in the sun shield.
Launch came at 4:59:38 p.m. McMurdo time (NZDT). The balloon was released and swung up over the gondola. The Boss danced back and forth a bit to align SPIDER under the balloon, then released it to fly free. The release made a loud sound which struck fear into the hearts of those who built the gondola, but SPIDER was no worse for wear. We all jumped for joy and hugged one another.
I took a brief video of the launch with my iPhone, focusing on the balloon: http://youtu.be/Bgdrq1vzXEY. Jon Gudmundsson took a higher quality video focusing on the payload itself: http://youtu.be/yaYqKqeBuHo.
After a few moments of celebration, it was back to work. The team needed to check the functionality of all of SPIDER’s systems, tune up its gondola and pointing systems, and start understanding the data it was producing. As of this writing, all of the major systems are working spectacularly. The balloon is currently floating 120,000 feet above us, still clearly visible in the sky as it drifts lazily toward the horizon.
Working on SPIDER here in Antarctica has been an incredible experience. It has taken me to one of the most amazing locations on earth to do something totally crazy, all in service of understanding the workings of the universe. I couldn’t ask for a better team of people to work with, both down here and back at home. Now it’s time to do some Science.